Summary: Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate physicist, is suffering from a slide into middle-aged mediocrity, academic impotence and marital strife. The fight against climate change starts to consume his academic life, but his private life stays pretty messy.
There was a phenomenal amount of chat about this in the blogosphere – so much so that at least one blogger commented that it was quite off-putting to have everyone talking about one book simultaneously. There were pretty mixed feelings (list of reviews at the bottom of this one) but the majority feeling was “close, but no cigar” – and I have to say that it’s that opinion I share. Although I did learn the meaning of “hegemonic arrogance” and think it’s a fantastic phrase.
McEwan does, of course, write with staggering perspicacity, which leads to some highly amusing commentary regarding our protagonist’s figure:
“He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women” and “At last, he knew himself for what he was. Catching sight of a conical pink mess in the misted full-length mirror… What engines of self=persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain-swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear…”
McEwan also clearly hung around in a physics department to come with a cast of six post-doctoral students:
“They ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight and all stood above six feet. Two had ponytails, four had identical rimless glasses, two were called Mike, two had Scots accents, three wore coloured string around their wrists, all wore faded jeans and trainers and tracksuit tops. Even Jock Braby referred to all six as ‘the ponytails’.”
It made me laugh – I know a ponytailed physics post-doctoral student or two myself. My general impression of the science was that McEwan had researched very thoroughly; unfortunately it came across a little too often and ended up looking like he wanted to show off that he had researched.
McEwan isn’t afraid to tackle the hard subjects – the general gender controversy of women in physics (do they have different brains and different abilities? Should we be trying to get more, or fewer, of them into physics studies? A controversy I’m very familiar with, as a woman with a physics degree) and climate change (he has Beard deliver a very well-written speech about climate change) both get some examination. He touches on what it is to lose relevance in one’s field, to have ambition and not be able to attain one’s potential (or to lack ambition altogether).
Some of the bleak farce is genuinely funny (particularly the Unwitting Thief construct on the train), but often it is a little self-indulgent and jars. The sudden accidental death is funny and awful and therefore neither. We clearly have an unreliable narrator, but one who is shown to be so. Some of the thought insertion is a little forced, but on the whole it is entirely fluent and Beard has a strong and distinctive voice.
What McEwan does spectacularly is to provide acerbic social commentary: both the description of effects of the political folly undertaken in which contributions are invited from the public and a response is promised to each one:
“These self-taught inventors seemed to have no awareness of the long history of their devices, or how they would, if they actually worked, destroy the entire basis of modern physics… One of the post-docs proposed sorting the ideas according to which of the laws they violated, first, second or both.”
And a spectacularly British attitude to being the passenger of an inattentive driver:
“Rather die or spend a life as a morose quadriplegic than be impolite”
And yet there were bizarre flaws – one must wonder whether the editors were a little frightened of interfering with the household name’s work. Someone should have caught that Old Kent Road is not in the East End (whereas its Monopoly companion, Whitechapel Road, is).
The climax is reached through the impending doom of various lovers meeting, a criminal being released from jail and looking for revenge, and academic disgrace about to descend. There is no actual resolution, but I found this far better than had we witnessed Beard’s descent into destitution (such as in King of Torts). There was a bizarre inclusion of a fictional Nobel Prize speech, which serves little purpose and appears to have been included almost by mistake.
Conclusion: A flawed modern masterpiece. Read it and come up with your own list of quibbles.